Hanging Out With the Apples

If I were to pick the ideal venue to record interviews in, the EAT café in Notting Hill wouldn’t be my first choice. It’s tiny and extremely noisy (and I’m sure their staff don’t appreciate random people walking in and sitting down for 15 minutes without ordering anything either, so the feeling’s probably mutual). At the moment, however, it’ll have to do. It’s certainly a lot quieter than the nearby Notting Hill Arts club, where a handful of bands are busy soundchecking ahead of performing later today.

Two members of one of those bands – Israeli funk outfit The Apples – are huddled round a table with me: trombonist Yaron Ouzana, and DJ/turntablist Todres. A week ago, I’d met them for the first time at the Greenbelt festival, where I’d had the job of hosting two workshops they’d led there: one introducing themselves and their music, and one titled Tracing the History of Funk.

The rest of the nine-piece band’s line-up are: Arthur Krasnobaev (trumpet), Oleg Nayman (tenor & soprano saxophones), Yakir Sasson (baritone sax), Yonadav Halevy (drums), Alon Carmelly (double bass), Schoolmaster (turntables) and MixMonster (sound & live effects guy). Most of them are from Haifa in the north of Israel; Yaron is from Jerusalem. “A few of us studied together at the musical academy of Jerusalem,” explains Todres. “Some of us studied together at the musical faculty in Haifa’s university. We played together in some small groups, then Yoni (Yonadav, the drummer) had the idea to form this supergroup which would contain two djs and a really good four-piece horn section.”

And where did the name come from? “Our drummer loves apple juice,” says Todres. “He had to decide on a name just before our first gig, for the flyers and PR. And he just thought ‘Okay – let’s call ourselves the Apples.’ It was a last-minute decision. But it’s stuck. And there it is!”

“Most of us come from jazz music,” says Yaron, explaining how they gravitated towards funk. “Somehow, we went ‘way left’ to James Brown and all the funk around the JBs, Curtis Mayfield… all the good guys. We really got inspired by them. We have a lot of inspiration from other genres as well, such as reggae, dub, electronic music, classic rock, psychedelia and Latin music.”

In the seven years that they’ve been going, the Apples have shared the stage with some of the giants who’ve influenced them. Yaron, for one, is still awestruck from their collaborations with Fred Wesley of the JBs. “For me specifically as a trombonist,” he says, “meeting Fred was a dream come true; the highest point of my career. I never could have wished for more. He’s a huge man, an amazing musician, and I know all his licks and phrases! We’ve also had the privilege of working with Shlomo Bar who’s a legendary Israeli singer; he’s the founder of ethnic music in Israel. He’s amazing; he sings in gibberish! In some way, he fitted in with us.” One of Todres’ highlights was performing with Indian drummer Johnny Kalsi at WOMAD. “It was a last-minute idea,” he recalls. “Yoni knows him and so he asked him if he’d play with us, and he said ‘Yeah – of course!’ He heard the track once, then came on stage. It was crazy!”

If the audiences at their Greenbelt seminars are anything to judge by, the Apples are one band that can truly claim to reach all ages. During their ‘history of funk’ Q&A session, the people asking questions ranged from about 11 to 50-plus. “In Israel,” says Todres, “it’s kinda natural for us to see kids – or parents with kids – coming to see us.”

Yaron concurs. “There’s no age limit to the Apples’ audience. Anyone who can enjoy the music enjoys the music. We don’t aim our music at a specific age group or audience. We just enjoy playing.”

About three years ago, the band’s manager Zack Bar started working on a strategy to take their music overseas. He wrote letters and sent their music off to 200 record labels. London-based indie Freestyle Records warmed to two tracks: the title track of their second album, ATTENTION!, and their cover of the Rage Against the Machine song “Killing in the Name”.

“Freestyle released ‘Attention!’ on a compilation,” says Todres. “People began to ask who the Apples were. They then signed us up.” As a consequence, the Apples have spent a lot of time performing in and around Europe. “English audiences are good,” says Yaron approvingly. “We’ve been to Germany and Belgium and also Spain. But the UK is really like our second home now.”

Nevertheless, the Apples are still very committed to the Tel Aviv underground scene they consider themselves part of. At Greenbelt, their first seminar was meant to be an introduction to themselves as a band. They covered that in half an hour, then spent the remaining half hour talking about (and playing us music by) other Israeli artists, introducing us to the likes of Digital Me, UBK and the Ramirez Brothers (they’re not brothers, and their name’s not Ramirez).

Todres waxed lyrical on the band’s philosophy of sharing (he did tell me the Hebrew word for it, but I haven’t a clue how you spell it): “If you give away, you always get back. At Greenbelt it was kind of like, we’ve finished talking about ourselves; now we have time to give to our friends who are really good musicians, to give them some space so that other people around the world can know about their music because we think it’s good.

“All the things you heard – the Ramirez Brothers, Digital Me, UBK, the reggae stuff – all came from close friends of ours; people who are like family round us in Tel Aviv.”

“There are many, many musicians in Israel,” Yaron adds. “There are many bands and many new styles. And some of them are really successful around the world; Balkan Beat Box, for instance.”

But the challenges facing musicians are as real in Israel as they are anywhere else in the world. “People in Israel download music too,” says Todres. “But I don’t think this is the main issue. The important thing is that the underground scene has grown intensively in Israel over the past 10 years – especially in Tel Aviv.

“I think the minute you understand that you’re not going to become wealthy from music, this is the exact moment that all your attention goes on to the music itself.”

The Apples are touring the UK from the 30th of October to the 7th of November. If they’re playing a venue near you, make sure you see them; they’re well worth it.

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